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Friday, April 09, 2021

The Mathematics of the Gods and the Algorithms of Men: A cultural history, by Paolo Zellini | Book reviews - Church Times

Andrew Davison, Starbridge Senior Lecturer in Theology and Natural Science at the University of Cambridge, and Fellow in Theology and Dean of Chapel at Corpus Christi College looks at mathematical history.

The Mathematics of the Gods and the Algorithms of Men:
A Cultural History

THE word “invention” has the unusual quality of meaning two opposing things. That puts it in the company of a fascinating set of words including “dust” (to sprinkle something, and to wipe it off) and “oversight” (to watch over something, and to fail to do so). Most often today, “invent” means “to make up”, but it also preserves the older sense of “to discover”. Readers of the Church Times might recall the name of the feast on 14 September, the Invention of the Holy Cross.

These yoked meanings of “invent” lie at the heart of Zellini’s book (a translation of La matematica degli dèi e gli algoritmi degli uomini). On the one hand, we have “the mathematics of the gods”: abstract and eternal realities that lie before, beneath, and behind mundane reality. They would be there to be discovered. On the other hand, we have “the algorithms of men”, which offers a very different vision of mathematics. On this view, it would be that which can be elaborated, potentially from some arbitrarily chosen starting point, in a finite number of moves designed by human minds...

Serious attention is also being given to the ethical implications of the enormous power now invested in computerised algorithms. Catherine Besteman and Hugh Gusterson gathered some mainly cautionary essays (Life by Algorithms: How roboprocesses are remaking our world, University of Chicago Press, 2019), while Michael Kearns and Aaron Roth were considerably more optimistic (The Ethical Algorithm: The science of socially aware algorithm design, OUP, 2019). All these books seem to me to succeed as books. Zellini’s, unfortunately, does not.


Source: Church Times